Sudden death, a mysterious and devastating outcome of epilepsy, could result from a brain stem shutdown following a seizure, researchers report today in Science Translational Medicine. Although the idea is still preliminary, it’s engendering hope that neurologists are one step closer to intervening before death strikes.
Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) has long bedeviled doctors and left heartbroken families in its wake. “It’s as big a mystery as epilepsy itself,” says Jeffrey Noebels, a neurologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and the senior author of the new paper. As its name suggests, SUDEP attacks without warning: People with epilepsy are found dead, often following a seizure, sometimes face down in bed. Many are young—the median age is 20—and patients with uncontrolled generalized seizures, the most severe type, are at highest risk. About 3000 people are thought to die of SUDEP each year in the United States. And doctors have struggled to understand why. “How can you have seizures your whole life, and all of a sudden, it’s your last one?” Noebels asks.
In 2013, an international team of researchers described its study of epilepsy patients who had died while on hospital monitoring units. In 10 SUDEP cases for which they had the patients’ heart function and breathing patterns, the authors found that the patients’ cardiorespiratory systems collapsed over several minutes, and their brain activity was severely depressed. “Their EEG went flat after a seizure,” says Stephan Schuele, an epileptologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, who wasn’t involved in the study.